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In a recent article published in The New Republic and entitled ‘The Science of Suffering’, Judith Shulevitz reviews contemporary findings from psychiatry and psychology about trauma, in particular post traumatic stress disorder PTSD, and its trans-generational inheritance. Research carried out with families of Holocaust and Cambodian survivors, as well as with African and Native Americans, suggests that children of survivors “may be born less able to metabolize stress,” with the “propensity for PTSD after trauma … about 30 to 35 percent heritable”.

Family dynamics, socialization, exaggerated or one-sided forms of commemoration as well as an unconscious tendency to place oneself in dangerous or difficult situations (what neuro-psychologists refer to as ‘high-risk hypothesis’) delineate pathways of (re-)traumatization. Various cultures have elaborated own names and symbolic representations for this type of distress. In recognition of this, DSM-V now includes “nine culturally specific presentations of mental disorders; one is Cambodian, others are Latino, Japanese, and Chinese.” For example, Cambodians associate such trauma with an attack of a malevolent wind known as ‘khyal’ and with being dominated by a ghost that pushes one down.

Trauma is also a core concept of psychoanalytic theory – and not without reason the TNR article makes reference to psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan (even if as psychiatrist and psychohistorian rather than as psychoanalyst).

Sigmund Freud was among the first to note and study the compulsive tendency among patients exhibiting neurotic symptoms as a result of war to re-live their traumatic experiences in dreams. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) he construed this as evidence that libidinal forces are not the only ones driving our instinct for self-preservation, whereby the nightmares of traumatized patients are concurrently an attempt to relive the traumatic event under ‘normal’ conditions of alertness thus finally overcoming the terror once experienced.

Freud was, however, also careful to point out the similarities between traumatic and non-traumatic neuroses with regard to affect, symptoms and subjective perception. In other words, neurotic patients in general behave as if traumatized, albeit to a varying degree, and mainly in relation to childhood experiences. Even if this presents a certain complication for treatment, it is an indication of how our mental apparatus is constructed, namely elementally along single dimensions but complicated in their interaction. This also applies to the interplay of biological, cultural and psychological factors in the original experience and subsequent repetition of traumatic experiences. For this reason we should also not expect to be able to do away with PTSD alone through the application of drugs that tackle, say, a traumatized patient’s ability to metabolize stress.

A German version of this blog can be read at Wunderblog.